Introduction to Anarchism Vol. I
From the Greek:
An = “No” or “Without”
Archy = “Ruler(s)”
Thus, Anarchy = “without rulers”
I think it’s clear that I should write some sort of brief introduction piece to my conception of anarchism/libertarian-socialism. My last two posts were pretty full of jargon that may alienate some (though I believe that they are actually pretty simple minded compared to a lot of the stuff I see written on the similar topics), and I think that is contrary to the spirit of anarchism, a philosophy that inherently anti-elitist (I will use the labels anarchism and libertarian socialism interchangeably, as they are synonymous). Now, I want to make clear that I am going to put forward my own conception of anarchism; more accurately, what I understand about anarchism. I am not as sophisticated in my thinking as many of fellow anarchist thinkers and activists; for example, my understanding of Marxist political economy is extremely basic. So yes, my views may not be sufficiently complex or radical for some, and I readily acknowledge that without issue; this blog is of no use for those of you. However, in a sense I believe that my simple-minded conception is useful for at least some people, enough for me to feel the need to share my writing on it.
All that aside, my conception of anarchism is not all that different from most of the general “collectivist” anarchist tradition (as opposed to “individualist” anarchism). I will say that it most closely resembles the anarcho-syndicalist strain, as practiced by those in revolutionary Catalonia. But in a lot of ways, its still my own as I put emphasis on different aspects more than others, have my little slight disagreements, and so forth.
At any rate, lets begin with what I see as the absolute core of anarchist philosophy: the principled opposition to illegitimate forms of hierarchy (illegitimate authority). The famous American dissident Noam Chomsky, I believe, elaborates on the meaning of this most succinctly: Chomsky often says that the burden of the justification of authority as legitimate always lies on the party that is expressing authority. An example of a legitimate exercise of authority would be, for example, a father forcibly pulling his four year old daughter out of the way of an oncoming car whilst crossing the street. This action could be easily justified on the part of the father, and the daughter would most likely be in agreement. In a sense, authority should be consensual.
As mentioned, illegitimate forms of authority is what anarchism is principally against. Examples of this form of authority include many social institutions that have never been obligated to justify their authority, and of which we, as individuals or as multiplicities, never have had to opportunity to consent to. The most obvious example of this form of authority is government (the state); perhaps opposition to government is what anarchists are most known for, at least here in America. In reality, opposition to the state, whilst a large element of anarchist thought, does not define anarchism. Indeed, if we are to express opposition to all forms of illegitimate authority, and all institutions that project or perpetuate illegitimate forms of hierarchy on society, then we must go further. A good starting point, nonetheless, is to look at the state, specifically its nature and its origins. From there we can get a good idea of the deeper hierarchical structures that surround us in our social lives everyday, and derive from that some other clearly identifiable institutions that express illegitimate authority.
So what is the state, and where does it come from? The classic libertarian answer, one that I generally agree with, is that the state is an institution of centralized power that has a monopoly on force or violence in a given society. The reason for its existence, according to Marxist thought, has always been to enforce the will of, and to protect the status of, the ruling class of a society. In supplement to that thought I would add anarchist thinker Rudolf Rocker’s metaphorical characterization of society as a living organism, of which the state is a specific organ with the specific “biological” purpose of maintaining a society’s socioeconomic status quo (and thus, just as eyes cannot evolve to hear, or ears evolve to see, the state cannot evolve into a mechanism for anything but what it has always been for; therefore, the solution is to eliminate it). As noted, the state maintains a monopoly over violence in a given society; this is what gives it it’s perceived authority: its unquestioned and total capacity to use violent force to achieve its ends as defined by the socioeconomic interests of the ruling elite.
This, of course, brings us to the concept of class. If we are to truly be opposed to illegitimate forms of hierarchy, we must take socioeconomic class into account; it is, after all, pretty damn important if we are to believe the conception of the state I had just given. In other words, if one is to be an anarchist, it is not enough to just desire a stateless society, but also a classless society. After all, it is social stratification, the existence of a ruling class, that gave existence to the state — so as long as there is class, there will be the state.
It is this opposition to social stratification, and the results of which, that gives anarchism its strict opposition to capitalism, which we view as the economic structure that perpetuates class at present. The exploitation inherent to capitalism works through utilizing and perpetuating a class society. In this context, the state’s job is to enforce the economic framework of capitalism, all in the interests of maintaining the status of the current ruling class, the capitalist class or bourgeoisie, and growing its wealth and power. Thus, the state and capitalist economic mode are viewed as constituting a complex: the state being the apparatus for which the power of the ruling capitalist class is centralized and focused for reasons of enforcement of class interests; namely the exploitation of the lower classes’ labor (and consumption) for the ends of capital accumulation, or growth.
In Marxian terms, the capitalist mode of production constitutes a base; the foundations for which relations in society constitute themselves. It is the relations of production (the laborer’s relation to his or her capitalist boss, as well as to his or her fellow laborer — a relationship which has been distorted due to alienation) that provide the basis for class society. Furthermore, the economic base gives rise to a superstructure: a complex of institutions encompassing all realms political, legal, religious, cultural, and so forth, that all exist to legitimize the base. The state can be easily seen to be a part of this superstructure, as the political institution that serves to enforce the base’s political needs.
Our society’s legal code, our laws, are also part of this superstructure; laws dealing with the right to private property, and the actions that are seen as violations to it, seem to be the most obvious point of the legitimization of the capitalist mode. Our society’s legal code also has other very important implications that cannot just be read in its lettering; derived from the legal code, as well as other social institutions that make up the superstructure, are certain social values that are instilled in us all. We may not know how much of our selves is derived from genetics or biology and how much is derived from social conditioning, but it’s exactly for that reason we must remain skeptical. This is not to say all of these values, whether they are the result of social conditioning or not, are wrong or bad. For example, the values we have that are seen to make up, in part, our capacity for empathy, such as whatever values deter us from killing or harming others, obviously could be justified in numerous ways. However, if there’s a possibility that at least some of our values are the result of social conditioning, we must question the origins of our values because of what we know about society — in particular, how there are concentrations of power within it that manipulate it in various ways. As such, we must have some sort of assumption that our values could be the result of this manipulation. Such value-systems are referred to as ideology: value-systems that exist to support the current hierarchy of a society; in other words, value-systems that benefit the ruling classes.
If we are to oppose illegitimate hierarchy and construct a vision of society in which it is minimized, it is important for us to recognize that much our thinking is the result of ideology. Ideology is possibly the most insidious way hierarchy legitimates itself; nothing is more dangerous for a totalitarian, exploitative society than for it to be also populist or supported by public opinion. Indeed, one needs to look no further than Nazi Germany to see an example of this (a rather extreme case). In any case, the best way for us to investigate whether our value-systems are that of ideology is to very simply ask ourselves, honestly, about our values and beliefs: “Who wants to me to believe this? Who benefits most from me believing this? Who is harmed?” And through asking those questions, one will come to realizing, to the extent that matters, why one holds certain beliefs and to the extent they perpetuate the illegitimate hierarchical systems within our society. We can also, then, see what social institutions various social values are associated with: religion with obedience; culture with materialism or consumerism; the legal with individualism; science with instrumental reason; and so on. It is also important to recognize that values may not be one-dimensional; that may have multiple dimensions, some of which could be beneficial and some of which may perpetuate social ills such as exploitation. It is the recognition that is important, such that hopefully it will provide some clarity when attempting to identify hierarchical structures within society and envisioning a redemptive future.
I believe that the base-superstructure lens is useful in identifying hierarchy and also in recognizing the central role of the economic sphere in society. However, possibly the greatest philosophical achievement of the 20th century, particularly in continental philosophy, is the recognition that the economic sphere is not all encompassing. This does not necessarily de-legitimize the base-superstructure framework, but it shows that it is, perhaps, limited. Indeed, we can see the importance of socioeconomic class and how the various social institutions within the superstructure, and their resultant ideological contributions, operate to perpetuate the class-based society in the interests of the ruling socioeconomic class. However, there are other realms of illegitimate hierarchy that could be seen to transcend the sphere of economics, even if at some level they do also work to legitimize the base and thus fit within the base-superstructure model as part of the superstructure — they can also be seen as constituting “bases” themselves. That is, they also originate their own social institutions and resultant ideological systems that work to legitimize their existence.
I am speaking mainly of, of course, sex, race, and religion. This is not to say there are other significant hierarchical systems within our society; I could certainly think of a few more, such as those hierarchies that arise from sexual orientation (though I would argue that this stems from patriarchy, in large part), ethnicity, nationalism, and so forth. At any rate, I don’t want to go deep into analysis of these systems right now because I believe that I am even less of an authority to write about such matters than I even am regarding economics. However, I will say that these systems are just as significant to think about as matters of the state or of capitalism; furthermore, I believe that anybody who is serious about anarchism must recognize the interplay these systems engage in with each other — the role white supremacy, for example, has played in capitalism, particularly during times of slavery; the fact the housewife, whilst engaging in labor, is unwaged and thus is not considered to be “productive”; or what role religion has played in the subjugation of women, the subjugation of non-white races, or in shaping a narrative for the imperialism of the wealthy capitalist nations.
Indeed, the level of interplay between these hierarchical systems leads one to conclude that they all form one, overarching, system of power within society. That it is not a matter of consequence that the ruling elite, the ruling class, of society is not only made up of wealthy capitalists, but of white, male, Christian, wealthy capitalists of European or American descent. We break up this overarching system of hierarchy in different categories based upon what we perceive as different spheres of society in order to obtain a better understanding. In a sense, this could be a result of ideology that we might not be able to escape from yet in total — this emphasis on investigation by “scientific” means. However, we do have a name for this overarching system of hierarchy, and focusing on it brings us to a much more profound level of understanding of the anarchistic philosophy. Paradoxically, this overarching system is not a system, and it is not overarching; rather it is a characteristic of human relations, and it is most often exercised minutely and intricately. This is called power. In my next volume of this potential series of posts, I will attempt to explore this concept in depth and relate it to anarchism.